Friday, February 5, 2010

Flashback Friday: Miriam Makeba

While watching a Jets game with my family a few weekends back, every few commercial breaks I was treated to a car commercial built around a catchy, unstoppably joyous, African-sounding pop song. As far as I could tell, however, the lyrics weren't in English, so my hopes of simply being able to ask the internet later that evening were temporarily dashed, until my dad noticed the commercial for the first time and conveniently declared, "Hey, that's Miriam Makeba!" In my memory, this was accompanied by some brief dancing, but it's possible that I added this to the mental image after the fact.

Turns out the song is called "Pata Pata" (and sung in Xhosa, if you're curious), and it was a fairly sizable hit when it was released in 1967. I challenge you to sit still while listening to it.

But there was an imperceivably melancholic element to the song's recording, which comes to light in the full view of Ms. Makeba's life and career.

Miriam Makeba grew up singing in South Africa and found great success there, but she was anxious to go to the West. Eventually getting the chance, she first traveled to Europe and then the U.S., where she was supported by and collaborated with Harry Belafonte. Spreading the musical heritage of her home country while simultaneously denouncing its practice of apartheid, she eventually gained the moniker "Mama Africa" and became as well known for her civil-rights activism as for her music. This resulted in her South African citizenship promptly being revoked; she was effectively exiled from her home country when she attempted to return for her mother's funeral in 1960, only a year after she had left.

"Pata Pata" is a song about a traditional dance done "down Johannesburg way... Every Friday and Saturday night it's pata pata time!" she giddily exclaims during two brief English-language interludes. However, at the time she recorded the song, it was not clear that she would ever be able to return to her native country. As the New York Times pointed out, "It’s impossible to guess what she may have been thinking when she sang ["Pata Pata,"] in the full knowledge that she herself would not be welcome back in Johannesburg until a regime change."

(There are some other interesting circumstances surrounding the recording of "Pata Pata," but the rest of the story will have to wait until next Friday.)

Miriam Makeba eventually did return to South Africa, in 1990, at the behest of Nelson Mandela, who had frequently seen her perform in the days before his imprisonment. There she reunited with her only surviving sibling and visited her mother's grave for the first time.

If you'd like to delve further into Ms. Makeba's life and perspectives, she published an autobiography, Makeba: My Story, in 1988, while still in exile. It's unfortunately out of print but can be found used at and elsewhere.

(Thanks, Dad.)

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